Day 6 - Hillel


In the midst of dramatic events in Ukraine our Shabbat in Odessa started in Litvak Synagogue in an atmosphere of peace and joy. Our group attended services and then was invited to celebrate Shabbat at Odessa Platinum Youth Club. It was amazing to see many young people regaining their Jewish identity after more then 70 years of oppression of Judaism in the Soviet Union. During this evening we could feel that Jewish life in Odessa is rejuvenating through energy of these young people.

On Saturday afternoon we had a “farewell” lunch. During our last meal together we shared our impressions from the trip, acknowledging that incredible work of our coordinators (Rise, Dasha, Viktor), who managed to make our trip smooth in spite of disturbing events that shook Ukraine and the whole world.

Our trip concluded at the office of Odessa Hillel where we discussed issues of Jewish identity, features of the Ukrainian Hillel operational model and special relationships between Jewish community in Odessa and non-Jews. It was very interesting to learn why Jews in Odessa rarely encounter anti-Semitism and how it is different from the other cities of the Ukraine.

Hi all (and hi mum!),

First a quick security update: we are proceeding with our program but are certainly taking security warnings very seriously and taking extra precautions. Odessa is located far away from Kiev and we are told has a very different mentality. The feeling on the streets is one of heightened awareness but that’s very much to be expected. We are all safe and have various entities monitoring the situation and guiding the decision makers.

Day 5 - Catacombs

The focus of the today was Odessa during World War 2. We visited the catacombs where we explored the headquarters of the Ukrainian resistance. It was eye-opening to see the resourcefulness of these groups including their living quarters, kitchen, workshop and communication center. It was also fascinating to hear how they were able to outmaneuver the Romanian guards by understanding the direction of the wind and being so familiar with the terrain.

We then visited the Holocaust Memorial and Holocaust Museum, both of which added to the complexity and nuance of this period of history.

Day 5 - Warm House HesedDay 5 - Warm House Holocaust

Our last stop before Shabbat was to JDC’s ‘warm houses’- groups that gather to share stories and keep each other company. We split into two groups with some visiting a group of Holocaust survivors and the other visiting a group of community volunteers. The afternoon with the Holocaust survivors and the daughter of a righteous gentile was fascinating, inspiring and uplifting. We ate, drank, sang, laughed and listened. So much of what we have experienced over the last few days has been about history, the future, and the role of organizations and while these are important there is something about engaging one-on-one with people and sharing stories and laughter that touches our very souls.

Shabbat Shalom from Odessa!

Hello everyone and welcome to our second day in the beautiful town of Odessa. We had a lot of things going on today, very interesting and eye-opening.

Day 4 - Statue of Writer

Anna Misiuk shared her outstanding journey with us this morning about how difficult it was for Jews to live under the Soviet regime and how challenging it is at times to live in post-Soviet countries, particularly Ukraine of course. This made me think of how we must not take for granted what we’ve achieved so far as a Jewish people and always stick together and help each other when necessary. Additionally, it also made me think of how grateful I am for having a powerful and viable Jewish state.

Day 4 - Chabad

Rabbi Avraham Wolf at Chabad and the community orphanage opened my eyes like there is no tomorrow. Seeing these little kids, which either no parents or their parents have abandoned them is heart breaking from the one hand but very inspirational from the other. Needless to say that being an orphan is terrible and parents are the most precious and valuable gift for all of us. We are lucky to have them. Thus, seeing kids without parents is very sad and makes you wonder what they were punished for like that. However, when I saw how these children are treated in that orphanage, how they’re taught everything and most importantly how successful some of them grow up to be, it warmed my heart in a way that is hard to explain. These kids are sort of heroes for me, and the orphanage does a big Mitzvah by turning them into successful adults instead of feeling sorry for them or simply neglect them. Yishar koah and may we have more people that care about the needy. One last thing to remember here: we weren’t all born equal, hence before you complain about mundane matters, think twice what’s really important and what really makes a difference.

Thanks to Yuliya, we got to go to a guided tour at the opera house here in Odessa. It was very interesting and informative to hear about the history of that great cultural place. It’s a little disappointing that we didn’t get to see a show, but whatever happens, happens for the best.

Day 4 - JCC Migdal

 At the JCC Migdal, all of the art was created by attendees!

We ended our busy day at JCC Migdal, where the wonderful Kira Verkhovskaya was sharing her agenda and insights about the Jewish community. Kira’s sense of humor, which is common for people from Odessa, was marvelous and engaged people into the conversation. Even more than the content, Kira inspired us all with her welcoming approach and candid experiences.

That’s all for now, we are all safe and sound and hope you are too, wherever you are at the moment.

Yours truly,



Day 3 - Train (small)

Today was a day for traveling far, both geographically and ideologically! This morning, after the earliest wake-up on record,* we took a long-distance train from Kishinev to Odessa. We passed through numerous country villages, and stopped a few times in the imaginary republic of Transnistria, but the real highlight of the trip was the opportunity to observe real residents alongside us on the train. One couple seemed to be Odessa-bound for a weekend holiday, and other travelers appeared to be on regular work trips. As we crossed into Ukraine, we had a mini-adventure with the Border Control, involving a lot of Russian and three separate officers, but our guide Dasha expertly managed the situation, and we were on our way before long. This entry might not be the place for a poetic dissertation on the romance of long-distance train travel, but be sure to ask for my photos and stories upon our return. 🙂

Day 3 - Beach (small)

The Hornstein group shivers at Odessa’s beach, currently decorated with snow!

Here in Odessa, we used the lunch time for our first processing session, traveling philosophically to explore our personal perspectives on the Former Soviet Union. The group paired up to discuss how we’re each approaching the trip, listing the questions that we’re asking ourselves about the sites we visit and the people we meet. We also explored how our personal backgrounds color our perceptions, as we shared about how we each established our Jewish and national identities. This processing session, which Levi and I created together, focused on the questions that we’re asking ourselves, and the next session will focus more closely on the answers that we discover here.

Day 3 - Migdal JCC (small)

Later in the afternoon, after an extensive and thorough tour of the city (I even saw the Black Sea for the first time!), we met with local young adults who are leaders at Odessa’s JCC Beit Grand. They work in different types of youth and young adult engagement, so we split up into “interest groups” to discuss camping, grassroots organizing, youth outreach, and Aliyah. I was fascinated to discover that we all experience similar challenges, despite our continental differences, but I also learned a lot from hearing about their programs, and they from mine. It was an incredibly practical and useful session, and we’re looking forward to seeing them again at Shabbat dinner on Friday night. Today was a day for stretching boundaries both mental and physical, and I’m excited for our remaining three days here in Odessa!

*in the last few days, at least. Not counting the day we left the United States.

Day 2 - Group at Memorial - Copy

So today we had an intense but fascinating day in Chisinau. After breakfast, we went to the city tour to explore Jewish history of Moldova and its capital. Among many sights, especially memorable was tour inside the old Jewish cemetery. There, we saw the graves of pogroms 1903 and ‘05 victims. We got on and off the bus multiple times and had a chance to walk around. It was very-very muddy around, which proved to us how impoverished the country is. At the end of the tour, we visited “central” synagogue of Chisinau and Moldova. I put quote marks there, because it hardly represents a Jewish community that once was here. Out of 77 (!) synagogues in 1940, there is just 1 left. And the Rabbi, who is 92 years old, has no successor who would wish to take his role after he retires.

Day 2 - Cemetery - Copy

After having a delicious lunch in the local restaurant, we met with Michael Shuv – JDC Director in Moldova. He was an eye-opening speaker who shared with us the situation in both Moldova and Jewish community in particular. People here are very poor. For example average pension for elderly is $80, while the prices in grocery shops are as high as in Europe! So without JDC, vulnerable Jews here would have a really hard time.

Day 2 - JDC - Copy

Tired but enthusiastic, we continued our day in Israel Consulate with the Vice Consul and Israel Cultural Club Director. They told us about how the institution operates in Moldova and which programs are organized for Jews, Israelis and others.

Day 2 - Levi Vice Consul - Copy

For dinner we had an amazing traditional Moldavian dish and then went to the last meeting, in Moishe House with its past and future residents (it’s in the transition mode right now). We had a lovely chat with many interesting people and learned a great big deal about how the community works from inside.

However when we came back to hotel, we saw on the news that there was violence going on in Kiev, with victims and injured people. We hope we still going to be able to spend some time in Odessa and so far we felt extremely comfortable and safe thanks to amazing organizing done by Rise and our guide Dasha.

We are looking forward to have safe travels and productive day tomorrow.

Greetings from Moldova! Today (or several days ago…we’ve been up for so long at this point I’ve lost track!) the 8 Hornstein travelers gathered at JFK to begin our long journey east. After a quick layover in Munich we landed safely–and happily–in Chisinau, Moldova. There was no rest for us and as soon as we met our tour guide, Dasha, at the airport, we had a quick and delicious lunch and began our journey of exploring the Moldova Jewish community.

Day 1 - President

Hornstein student Noah presents Alex Balinsky with a certificate of appreciation

Our first stop was a meeting with Alex Balinsky and Marina Lecartseva, President and CEO respectively of the Jewish Community of Moldova. This was a great session to start our trip with as both speakers discussed a brief history of the Jewish community in Moldova, how it has changed over time, and what the current issues facing the community are. We learned that the Moldova Jewish community has gotten increasingly smaller since World War II, with anywhere between 12,000-20,000 Moldovan Jews currently residing in the country. We also found out that Moldova only has one rabbi for the whole country! Speaking to the greatest issues the Moldovan Jewish community faces today, President Alex Balisnky stated that the Jewish community will continue to shrink because of poor economic conditions in the country, with 7 out of every 10 people leaving because of the economy. Additionally, the Moldovan Jewish community is aging, with more and more young Jews leaving for better conditions abroad.

Day 1 - JCC

The Hornstein students and Haverim participants speak in small groups about Jewish culture and identity

 After this first eye opening session, we travelled to the Kishinev Jacobs Jewish Campus to meet with representatives from the Kedem JCC and the Youth Haverim Club. It was amazing to see how Jewish life in Moldova is being represented by these organizations, drawing individuals in from a wide variety of backgrounds. I learned the most from meeting with the teens involved in the Youth Haverim Club, an organization dedicated to fostering a strong, young adult Jewish community in Moldova. It was fascinating to hear that many of these young people didn’t become aware of their Jewish heritage until much later in their life due to issues with family documents during the Soviet Union era. Even though many didn’t discover this part of their identity until relatively recently, it was amazing to see that they wanted to be involved in Jewish life in Moldova and wanted to form a community of engaged young adults. The intimate groups encounters that we had between the Hornstein community and the Youth Haverim Club was definitely the highlight of my day.

As I finish typing this blog post, my eyes are getting droopy and my bed is calling my name. If today was any indication, this is going to be a revealing and fascinating week and I look forward to more deeply exploring both the Moldovan and Ukrainian Jewish communities!

Stay tuned for more daily updates throughout the week, and like our Facebook page for the latest photos!


Each February, the Hornstein second-year cohort visits the Former Soviet Union, to familiarize themselves with the culture and community. Today, the travelers gathered at JFK airport, eager to begin this year’s trip to Moldova and Ukraine. Together with Prof. Mark Rosen and Program Director Rise Singer, the students will spend the next week exploring the Jewish history and modern culture of Chisinau and Odessa, meeting with young adults and community leaders, and experiencing the culture first-hand.

A few weeks ago, during a trip-planning meeting, second-year MBA/MA student Yuliya brought these authentic Ukrainian nesting dolls for the group. Each student took one home, and the entire set was just reunited in anticipation of the upcoming flight!

Each day, a different participant will write a update on the day’s activities, which will be posted here and cross-posted on the Hornstein Facebook page. Don’t forget to share it with your friends!

Welcome to our new blog – a place for faculty members and students to share news and discuss issues affecting the field of Jewish professional leadership and Jewish communal service.

About Hornstein at Brandeis University:

Hornstein’s intensive dual-degree master’s program immerses students in inspiring academic study, field-based experiences, and national and international travel.

Students earn two integrated degrees in just 21 months – a Master of arts in Jewish Professional Leadership and one of the following:

  • Master of Business Adminstration (MBA)
  • Master of Public Policy (MPP)
  • Master of Arts in Judaic Studies (MA)



Last day…

I am going to assume all of you read my previous blog. Or at least
pretend to. So here’s number two. Our final day. 🙁

It is lovely sitting here on the floor of the Kiev airport waiting for
airfrance staff to arrive to check us in …yes we prefer the
sprawling on the ground to sitting in chairs.

Lets recap our last day. Saturday. Which only ended a few hours ago.
Going along with Fridays theme of randomness. We began with Hillel
Odessa. Anna misiuk, Igor oks,( no worries, ill explain who they are)
more shopping, debriefing, opera, Purim, more Purim, posozhek ( ask
matt or ira to translate) 2 hour nap.

We arrived at Hillel in the morning and our first meeting was with
Anna misiuk, who significantly influenced the awareness of Jewish
culture and heritage. We can add her to our list of amazing, honest,
and personable speakers. The room we sat in was actually the first
office of JDC in Odessa…the starting point for the rebirth of Jewish
life in Odessa. Talk about full circle between past and present.
Anna is the essence of jewish culture and the arts . As she tells her
story, we all come to truly realize how deeply hidden Jewish culture
was by soviet authorities. Majority of Jews lived in fear in the time
of Gorbachev. Most were so unfamiliar with the jewish landscape. Anna
was one of the few who was familiar with JDC. During the days of
Stalin, you were shot for connections to the JDC. But after the
collapse of the Soviet Union and the rapid impoverishment that
immediately followed, JDC became the only thread of help and people
overcame their fear. We speak about the current generation, the youth.
They are the first generation to lives in an open society. They are
not locked in Ukraine, and to build community and engagement here they
need to believe in a future here..and now we come to the question.
STAY or GO? And we encountered this question throughout our trip, with
all the generations. Those who grappled with this question decades
ago. Those who ponder on this very topic today. And the crucial theme
of choice arises. We live in an era where we decide who we are, how
and where we choose to express ourselves. We encountered choice when
we visited two JCCs in Odessa, how do you decide where to go? What
community do you belong to? do we make the choice or are we chosen?
Our grandparents and great grandparents fought for the choice and now
it is our responsibility to make them.

Melissa made a great point during our debriefing. Sometimes too many
choices are overwhelming and perhaps it is easier to “be Jewish” when
fewer options are available.We have noticed patterns that in the FSU
the cultural/secular Jews
tend to go while the more traditional/religious stay. Quite the
opposite of North America.

We have immersed ourselves over the week on the historic and current
context in which these and other critical life choices are made. We
have experienced the fragility of our community, the important of
holocaust legacy, and learned about the critical roles many ,
especially non jews, have played in shaping the community here. My
most meaningful conversation was with Nastya, a nonJewish 18 year old
girl who is active in the Beit  Grand youth club, about prejudice, and
the relationships between different groups of people. To see her so
active and so connected to the Jewish community gave me hope that we
do not have to live within boundaries…and it also makes me think
about the types of programs we have, the types of environments we
create for our youth, and the way in which we educate and engage.

How can we incorporate this experience in the ukraine to the way in
which we think about organizations in the states? What works where and

How do we foster connections with our past and the current generation?
Anna speaks about the tool of performance and art to create bridges.
We cannot live without artists, without really creative people.
Reminiscent of Amy’s capstone, no?

Remember to widen the perspective in which you view and understand the world.
Immerse yourself in experiences that allow you to do so. Don’t be
frightened to take the risk. Our families experienced the true fear
and danger of being Jewish. We are now reaping their benefits.

Now that I have put in my few words of wisdom..lets move on to our
next speaker, igor oks, precisely the creative artistic personage that
Anna was describing. Igor, a former beitar activist, creative director
at an event management company, in his early thirties spoke to us
about his Jewish story. Which I might add is quite an interesting one.
To avoid making you read another three pages and having me type for
another hour in my sleep deprived, extremely caffeinated state…lets
just say this..early childhood. All he knew about Jewish culture came
from babushka. Wore a cross for a half a day. 1996. Camp. Jafi.
Chabad.beitar. Kazala mazala. Tfillin in the morning. Works on
Shabbat. Want to see how this all connects? Want analyze the trend?
Talking to the Ukraine group I recommend. (Yes, I had to put a rhyme
in there, couldn’t help myself I swear).

Continue the day…shopping. I won’t bore you ..well the boys
mostly..with the details. But you can take note of the new outfits to
come. And yes, I do expect you to notice.

Our Hillel students were sad to see us go. As was I. But the bridges
have been created. Now it’s up to us to cross them.

Opera time. Lalalaaaa…ready, set..10 minutes to get ready. We arrive
to the majestic opera theater.  That was built in only three years
might I add. Impressive, I know. We continue our cultural tradition
opera theaters in the Ukraine and intermission wine and caviar.
Classy, I know :). Stay tuned for pictures. After almost three hours
of singing and attempting to understand Ukrainian subtitles we
transition to PURIM. Chag sameach, everyone! And we walk over to
Bristol hotel for a chabad Purim party where our new friend Igor oks
is the host. After once again eating many potatoes some of us return
to the Moshe house to party with our fellow Russians, or Ukrainians,
or Jews..(see how complicated identity here can be 🙂

If Moshe house got us to come twice. They must be doing something
right. It felt like coming home, a real Purim celebration, and real
friends to celebrate with. Leaving that house was one of the hardest
things for me to do on this trip. We danced. We drank. We laughed. We

So, no witty or funny last words from me. But I can say that we are
all beyond excited to share our experiences with all of you. From the
emotional, hilarious, educational and entertaining points of view, we
will take you through our journey in Ukraine. And trust me, you’ll
enjoy the ride!

Second day in Odessa. Steely sky over our heads, damp cobblestones under our feet, we head out to explore our host city. “Do you know that Sholom Aleichem, used to call himself a Russian Mark Twain. He was very modest– a typical Odessit. ” “Look at this house. Here is where Chekhov wrote his Cherry Garden based on a real scandal in the neighborhood. ” “How do you like the fact that Brodsky synagogue once sat between Police and KGB headquarters on Jewish Street?” ” Yes, odessa has its own Wailing Wall: what the locals call their  court house.”

This is Lena, our guide, a middle school teacher, a bubbly blond Ukrainian woman who skips from history to legend of which there is an endless source everywhere we look.  Everything in Odessa embodies hybridity, mixture of culture,languages, traditions and its evidence evident in every encounter. Since its foundng in 1794, Odessa was an anomaly. Initially a Turkish fortress conquered by the Russian Empire, the fertile coast was colonized by Catherine the Great with foreign merchants and Jews from the Pale of Settlement who could quickly build up a vibrant trade  economy. Before the time of its founding, Odessa was a totally new Russian territory with no dominant indigenous culture and language. Yet among the  few Greek and Ottoman colonies there were six Jewish families. Within 30 years, there were 12,000 Jews, twenty percent of the population. Mid-century saw the arrival of Galician maskilim who built the first Jewish schools, communal institutions including a highly controversial choral synagogue, the first of its kind, named Brodsky after the town of Brody in Poland.

We saw no Jewish quarter in Odessa. Odessa’s Jews built clinics, music concervatories and founded institutes open to everyone. At the same time they met at Italian cafes, drank Greek wine and went to opera sung in five  languages.  Their daily lives were always mixed with their multilingual neighbors. The cultural exchange was not onlways friendly and there were violent outbreaks between Greeks, Ukrainians and Jews competing for monopoly in trade.

The  cultural hybridity is often visual and physical. Our fist stop was the Main synagogue, recently reconstructed from its interim state as a sports complex under the Soviet authorities. The beautiful  mosaic still betrays the remnants of the Russian aesthetic. Meanwhile, the legendary Brodsky synagogue  is taken over by the city archives. Our tour took us through Imperial and Soviet, then Ukrainian Odessa, from the city of  magnanates and maskils to the hub of artists and volutionaries. We passed the largest maket in town, Privoz– “two miles of food” where no one leaves hungry. A walk to Arcadia beach took us along the summer homes, dachas, of diamond dealers who funded the construction of the tram who wanted a convenient commute to the beach resorts.

Our tour with Lena was a whirwhind of places and names many of whom are world legends but here their presence is marked by smal plaques: the spiral staircase  in a tiny courtyard immortalized by Zhabotinsky, Meir Diziengoff’s modest apartment (now neighboring the Moishe House. Cafe Francone where once forefathes of Zionism held court is now a night club.

Much of this history we found in a small but mighty museum of Jewish Heritage which traces family lives of famous and ordinary Jews of Odessa. It’s full of personal objects– books, photos, clothes (a pair of Pesach pants captured my imagination)– each telling a small, personal chapter that is part of a large, mostly untold history of the Jews in Odessa.

Our next stop was at Migdal Jewish Center that predates virtually every modern Jewish institution in the city. Founded by its current director, Kira Verhovskaya, it started as a musical theater for Jewish kids  and grew into a cultural center supporting virtually every form of art and music education. Most of all, the center prides itself on being a family where kids literally grow up, learn to be Jewish in an informal (although Kosher) environment until they go on to make families of their own. While funded in part by JDC, Migdal insists on independence refusing to loose its unique grassroots character. As a mastermind and center force, Kira claims she can respond to the needs of the community better if they maintain this freedom. But shes not afraid of competition and sees no contradiction in having many venues for Jewish life in Odessa. As Kira puts it, “my husband is a Chabadnik, I’m a chain smoking musician wearing pants and our daughter has become a  Litvak.” Talk about hybridity.

A very different type of “Jewish home” was a brand new JCC Beit Grand, established by the Grand family and supported by fairly costly facility rentals. In look and feel it resembles an American style JCC with beautiful design and cultural programming from Salsa classes to camp to Krav Maga. In one of its modern rooms, lined with books and art, we met with a group of teens for whom Beit Grand has become a gateway toward their Jewish journey. Some are Jewish and some are not– at least not Halahikly. Some discovered their Jewish identity recently. Most come from families wherenthe parents have little conscious connnection to Judaism. But this is Odessa where the boundary between Jewish and not is not always clear. What brings these teens together is the yearning for a community with values and substance. The Jewish part is almous incidental. They take part in daily programming and are “mentored” by madrichim in their early twenties, college grads who themselves are addicted to each other and Beit Grand.

It is hard to derive a single theme from this days experience, in part because Odessa’s cultural life is full of contradictions. But they only appear so because of the mental boundaries we enforce. If anything it made me consider the deficiency of our familiar framework of divisions we live with in our communities in US.

  • Subscribe to the Hornstein Blog via Email

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 3 other subscribers

  • Like Us on Facebook!

Protected by Akismet
Blog with WordPress

Welcome Guest | Login (Brandeis Members Only)